is a project with the help of Sarah Jones & Ralph McKay at Summer School Marfa, a residency in Marfa, Texas curated by Renée Ridgway and TAAK Amsterdam via The Dutch Art Institute.
Last Friday, I walked into Pueblo, the local supermarket of Marfa, to check the bulletin board. Advertisements, yoga classes, dog-or-cat-of the week announcements, and a claim letter directed to Donald Judd, The Chinati Foundation’s Board of Directors and Staff and the Concrete Buildings. Two men, a big guy in a green shirt with a curvy moustache, and a big guy in a grey shirt with glasses, were reading the claim and discussing out loud. I walked up to them, stood behind them and eventually joined the conversation. They were pointing at a specific sentence that read:
The buildings are ours now.
‘What does that mean?’ – the man in the green shirt with the moustache asked, ‘What buildings is this talking about?’ I said I thought the letter was talking about the concrete buildings, the ones Judd put up some 25 years ago. Those at the very far back of the Chinati Foundation.
‘Yes’ the man in the green shirt replied, ‘I know what buildings, the arched concrete ones at the back right? I helped to construct them. We were supposed to build ten of them, on a grid, but only finished one and a half. I used to work for Bob Kirk, Judd’s contractor.’
‘So who is this ‘ours’?’
‘I think it might be a reference to all of us. The buildings are ours, like, as a shared site.’
The Concrete Buildings were supposed to become Donald Judd’s masterpiece. Instead of reworking existing constructions, he made a plan to put up ten buildings, sizes small, medium and large, that would be created according to the same logic as his artworks. But Judd passed away before he could finish the project. Today, two medium sized-ones are standing lonely in the deserted landscape.
The Chinati Foundation takes care of the site were Judd fled to in order to escape the institutional structure of the artworld. Critical of the way galleries and museums function, especially in their way of brutally treating the artworks and the temporality of the exhibitions they proposed, he set out to find an autonomous location and found it at an old army base in Marfa. The plan was to make the work site-specific and permanent.
At present, the preservation of the works on the Chinati site, Judd’s house, both of his ranches, and the myriad amount of places he owned in the town of Marfa, has taken on humongous proportions that outshine Judd’s initial idea of openness, new possibilities and autonomy. Since Donald Judd died in 1994, the people of the Chinati Foundation and the Judd Foundation have been working really hard to keep everything exactly the same as Judd left it behind. Every stone, collected mollusk or chair has remained untouched. The beds are made, sculptures haven’t moved, even his library is on permanent display. The way everybody tiptoes around the property makes it become almost uninterestingly static. Stuck in revisionism, the Judd legacy grants the impression that this place of artistic freedom has become a strictly regulated site. It almost has a sacred touch to it, as if it was a shrine kept unchanging for art pilgrims. However, glorifying the past does not hold much dialogue for the future. There is no room for contemporary dynamics, let alone for discussion.
The man in the green shirt with the curvy moustache looks at me and says: ‘those buildings remained unfinished not because of the death of Judd, but because they ran out of money. And they ran out of money because Judd and Kirk – the contractor – would put most of it in their own pockets. Of course they had to get a salary for their design and effort, but they took almost all.’ I wondered out loud how much they got. He said: ‘They got a grant from a railroad company called Burlington Northern, Burlington Northern, it was somewhere around 800.000 dollar.’
According to Judd, art, architecture and nature are the three components for a perfect artwork. The letter that claims the Concrete Buildings proposed a fourth component, namely a common site, where the buildings would function as a place for possibilities.
A week before this get-together in the supermarket, I got the chance to take a closer look at the usually inaccessible buildings, thanks to Ralph, the fully equipped Chinati guide. The constructions were absolutely stunning and so incredibly interesting. Who has ever encountered a Judd-under-construction? An open-Judd? This promising incompleteness created the urge to write a letter that claimed the buildings. The visible two on site, and the presumed eight invisible others.
It became essential to return and read the letter out loud on location. Ralph tried to convince the Chinati once more, but they refused to give access again. The rejection letter noted:
I feel we were quite clear about providing access once and warned that using the space as part of their “project selection” was problematic as repeat access would be challenging. Using the concrete buildings as an (quote – unquote) “art piece” requires additional permission – approval from Jenny, Rob, Bettina – and I don’t think we can make this happen by tomorrow. Please try to encourage them to find another solution.
On Thursday June 12, at noon, I read the claim out loud at the back fence outside of the Chinati Foundation, accompanied by two witnesses, Sarah and Ralph. The sun was rude, almost shameless and the wind blew untied in the dry landscape. After the reading, Ralph and Sarah signed the copies on the hood of the car. Then we drove into town and hung the claim all over Marfa. In the bookshop, at the local newspaper, the supermarket Pueblo, at the library, the court house, the bulletin board of the city and the coffee place.
The next day, the story started for real. Marfa being such a small town, people were actually reading the letter. Ralph said on Friday that Rob Weiner, the associate director, had read it at the bookshop. Also, he emailed me last Sunday that Jenny Moore, Chinati Director, said she’s glad ‘there’s thinking about the concrete buildings. She likes the text and she’s ready.’ I do not really know what that means, Ralph is a bit of an idealist, but it is wonderful that he is following up.
We can claim anything. Claiming can be a very simple gesture that acts from a position of refusal to accept what seems to be set. It allows you to state that something is the case without necessarily providing evidence or proof. This claim is not written for personal or private use, hence it is written in the we-form. It functions as a common claim, a request out of the need of many. And even though it is fully rooted in the context of art and addresses its problematics, it manifested itself outside of the known frame. I see it as a form of active withdrawal, of actively dropping out. If there could be a critical gesture in the retreat, it must look a little like this. At least that is what I hope; cause what else is the point of distancing oneself. It had the possibility to reach people that had something to do with art, but also held the prospective to go beyond.
The buildings are open to use, and empty, so who is going to start?